West End Drummers - Part 10 - Pete May - Wicked
West End Drummers Part 10 - Pete May – Wicked
Pete May took over as the drummer on Wicked at London’s Apollo Victoria Theatre in 2011. The show opened in 2006, winning an Olivier Award in 2010 for ‘Most Popular Show’, and focuses on the untold story of the Witches of Oz.
Pete has had a varied career that includes playing for David Essex, Sarah Brightman, Elaine Paige, Hank Marvin and Vanessa Mae. Pete has depped and held his own chair on several West End shows over the last decade as well as being Cliff Richard’s drummer since 1988. Yes, it is Pete you will have heard on those famous Christmas number ones!
Describe how you got into drumming
I started by messing around on pots and pans really. I got my first little drum kit, which was a Gigster, when I was about 10. I used to play along to records at home and my first proper playing was when I was at school; a mate of mine played bass and I started going round to his house to play along. I realised that everything I played was wrong; I used to play along to stuff on the floor tom and snare mainly, hardly used the hi-hat. My mate was into Deep Purple so that was when I started hearing people like Ian Paice. From then it was a revelation and I knuckled down in trying to play but no lessons; I was self taught.
In about 1976 a friend of mine introduced me to a bass player who was in a band needing a drummer. I got together with them and the first gig I ever did was a talent competition in Goodmayes (which we didn’t win). We played around the pubs and clubs until about ’78, we did a little cruise to Denmark; we actually got a record deal and had a single released but nothing came of it. The bass player’s uncle was an engineer at Abbey Road Studios so we’d go down there when the studios were empty about 12 o’clock at night and be there until 8 o’clock in the morning and have full use of studios 1, 2 and 3. Studio 4 wasn’t even built then! We were in there with our little band recording demos and on the back of that I got to know some of the other engineers there and I started to get a few calls to do stuff. When they built Studio 4 I did the first live drum recordings when they were testing it out.
Through being at Abbey Road I met a bass player called Herbie Flowers, a very famous guy who recorded and toured with David Bowie and played on Space Oddity. I played on some tracks he was producing and a couple of weeks later he called and invited me to play on a David Essex album ‘Be-bop The Future’ which he was going to play on. It was a massive leap for me to do this album in the studio with a star name. It was being produced by Al Kooper, who’d played on recordings for Hendrix, The Who and Rolling Stones. He was using his all-star diary of American session guys; Steve Lukather, Jeff ''Skunk'' Baxter, Rabbit Bundrick and Michael Boddicker. Essex wanted Herbie on bass and he’d recommended me! I was about 21. I set-up my Ludwig Vistalite Tequila Sunrise kit on the first day and when the engineer started putting mic’s round it he was like, “Where’s the wood on this kit?!”. That did unsettle me a bit but I knew it sounded good.
There were lots of problems during those sessions with the studio breaking down etc. While we were waiting around Essex said to me, “Next track we’re going to do is a kind of Country feel; maybe try brushes?”. I nearly had a heart attack ‘cause I knew I didn’t have any; I wasn''t a jazzer! When I got a chance I had to run up the Edgware Road to a music shop and buy some. The next day, during a break, Essex asked me to join him on his forthcoming tour. From there I was with him for about seven years, recording different albums and touring; mainly UK tours, Europe and a couple in South Africa. He used to have a band of backing singers at the time called The Real Thing, who had a few hits and I’d also go out and play for them.
In between that I was still doing other bits and pieces, tours with Bucks Fizz. I did a huge tour with a French star called Julien Clare. In 1988 I joined Cliff Richard. I?was recommended by Colin Norfield who was the sound engineer on the Bucks Fizz gigs I’d done. He’d been Cliff’s engineer for years and was well respected by Cliff’s MD and band. I thought that was going to be a one off tour at the time. That was his 30th anniversary tour and a couple of years ago I did his 50th so I’ve been doing it for 24years.
What’s Cliff Richard like to work with?
Fantastic. It’s very relaxed. When I joined it was just a case of listening to the music that he was doing, there was no music to read from. When I did the next tour it was just the same; a list of the songs to learn and about two or three days rehearsing with the band, then he would turn up. All the time I’ve worked with him he’s been great. He plays guitar, he’s musical and he knows what he wants. The only thing he might ever change would be a segue or an ending but he lets you get on and do your thing, as long as you’re playing them kind of like the record. The MD is marvelous. Over recent years most stuff has been transcribed so there’s now a pad for everyone. I just did his Soulicious tour back in October with some American acts he duetted with on his album. James Ingram was one and he was unbelievable. He would sing his solo number and Cliff would say, “We should finish the show right there”. Cliff was totally in awe of Ingram’s voice. He’s pretty cool, no ego.
Through working with Cliff, Hank Marvin asked me to do his tour, so that was great. I’ve played on a few of Cliff’s Albums and singles, and some made Christmas number ones. I’ve been able to do all the TV’s and Royal Variety performances and almost every tour has been made in to a DVD. I’ve been really lucky.
How did you get into playing on shows?
The West End was something I never would have thought I’d get in to in a million years, being self taught and not a reader. I always thought back in the 80’s that I could never do it because it was a school of seasoned pros and it was a closed shop that I’d never get in to. Maybe it was then, I don’t know, but I thought it was out of my depth.
In 2000 I got asked to go in and dep on ‘Saturday Night Fever’ for Andy McGlasson when it was at the Palladium. That was quite a good one to start for me because it was straight ahead with clicks on all the Bee Gees tunes so you could go in and not worry about having to keep your head up and looking at the MD. That got my foot in the door and after I got a taste of it I thought I’d like to do more but you still have to wait for people to call you.
That restarted here at the Apollo and I think Tim Goodyer started it. After he’d been doing it for a while he called me and I depped on it here for about nine months before it closed. I got two calls very close together for ‘We Will Rock You’ and ‘Fame’ so I depped on them at the same time. Once you get to know those guys who are already in there it gets you a reputation as a dep. Andy McGlasson got me in on ‘Hairspray’ and Tim Goodyer was doing ‘Avenue Q’ for about six months before they asked him to go to ‘Dirty Dancing’. When he left he asked me if I’d like to take it over, which I did for about four years and then I depped on ‘Dirty Dancing’. I got a call from James Powell to dep on ‘Legally Blonde’ and recently I’ve been doing ‘Ghost’ for Andy.
How did Wicked come up?
There was an audition when Guy Richman left and I was asked by the fixer along with a load of other people. Originally I was offered a week here on Wicked, as was everyone else, and then the MD would decide at the end of it. I heard the reputation of this gig was a big show and there was a lot to live up to. The week sounded good, I thought it would give me a chance to settle in. Then the week got changed just to auditions of about seven tunes. I was going to blow it out but at the last minute I decided I’d do it in case the fixer didn’t call me again. It was with the rhythm section and they had the American producers over. I was the first one and it was a lottery I guess, but luckily for me I got a call three days later offering it to me.
When I came in it was like depping and doing your first one. It felt very strange for the first month and it didn’t feel like my show but I’ve been here about eight months and it’s great. It’s all new to me, where a lot of the band have been here for about five years. There’s no click track, it’s all with the MD, which makes it live and breathe a lot more.
How did you deal with the pressure of wanting to do a good job on your first show as a dep?
For me it’s just preparing as much as I can for it. I keep going through it or listening to it in the car or on the iPod so I know it. The more you have it in your head the more you can keep your head up and on the MD when you go in and you’re aware of what’s coming rather than reading it all the time. I do most of my preparation listening to it, looking at the music and marking up the pad rather than actually at a kit.
When I depped on Fame for Gordon Marshall he said to me, ‘The thing is with this gig, it’s preparation, preparation, preparation’, and that’s kind of stuck with me. You really have to do your homework and that gives you the best chance. I’m always a bag of nerves when I do my first show. You feel like you have a cloud hanging over you! I’m not a nervous person but it is pressure on you. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been doing shows, everyone feels the same on their first ones, I think.
What is your set up on Wicked?
This kit belonged to Guy, the last drummer. They did ask if I wanted to bring my gear in but they said they were prepared to buy this kit from Guy, which was ideal because all the deps who had been on the show before me were used to it and it meant I didn’t lose a drum kit. The cymbals are all Sabian, who sponsor the show; 18” Vault crash, Hand Hammered 18” crash, 20” HH medium ride, AAX 10” & 12” splash, 19” Holy China, 22” HHX heavy Legacy Sizzle, 9” Ice Bell, 13” AAX X-celerator hi- hats.
It’s four toms on a Pearl Masters kit; 10, 12, 13, 14. I have them tuned right down low because they’re small toms and it’s a powerful show with some big moments in it. It’s a 20 inch bass drum with a 5.5 brass hammered Premier snare. There is an SPD 20, which is used for some sound effects like gong, woodblocks and some funny sounds. There are three triangles, bell tree, mark tree, shaker, finger cymbals. There’s a massive percussion set up next door for Marcus, who is amazing. It’s like looking out of my window in my front room while there’s a mad man running around in his garden!
What styles of music are in the show?
It’s rocky in places with a nice power ballad. It’s a heavy hitting show; I get through a couple of pairs of sticks a week and a set of heads every six to eight weeks. It’s very orchestral; there are lots of ralls and different tempos. There’s one number on brushes but it’s not really jazzy, some nice grooves to play, a bit of show two stuff. It’s got a lot of time signatures changes; it’s varied.
When I first heard it I thought some of it was like a film score and a bit operatic. It’s different to what I’ve done before, which is why I enjoy it. It’s a fantastic band, 17 of us down here. Being part of this rhythm section is brilliant. It’s a nice bunch of people so it ticks all the boxes.
What are your favourite moments?
‘Defying Gravity’ is great, the play out at the end has a nice guitar and piano solo and a couple of drum breaks. ‘No Good Deed’ is a big tune, when I first heard it I really liked it. It’s got its moments all the way through with some good tunes.
Do you do any warm ups before a show?
Not really. When I come in here I will play a few fills round the kit but I’ve got no warm up routine and I never really have. I don’t think I’m the only one! I get enough of a play when I’m in here.
What else are you working on outside the show at the moment?
I’m depping on Ghost, I’m doing The Queen’s Jubilee Concert with Cliff in June and I run my own band, which is an Earth, Wind and Fire tribute band called ‘Ultimate Earth, Wind and Fire’. We’ve got a gig in Italy and some festival gigs in July and August. I’ve done that with a mate of mine for about 12 years. It’s a 12 piece band and we’ve played all over the place; Summer festivals, theatre tours with acts from the 70’s or 80’s. I would love to do more of that cos it’s such great fun. I’m working on it.
What do you think are the pros and cons of theatre work?
I don’t think there are many cons; you can always take breaks so you’re not trapped in a show. When I got Avenue Q I couldn’t believe it; I’d been doing it for a month when I thought they’d paid me twice, then someone said, “That’s your holiday pay!”.?I just wasn’t used to that. Then you get double money for bank holidays so whenever I could I would always take a holiday.
I’d only been here at Wicked for about a month and they allowed me a month off to do Cliff’s tour. To have a show is a real luxury because you can still go out and do other things, as long as you have good quality deps who can look after it. I’ve been lucky with the fixers I’ve worked for and the MD’s. Having a show is fantastic because you know when your tour ends you can come back and you’ve still got the show.
You could say the repetition is a con but when I’ve done tours with Cliff, Elaine Paige, Sarah Brightman, Hank Marvin or whoever... you’re doing the same thing on those gigs as well. If I ever feel that I don’t want to go in to the show then I’ll just take the night off, which you have to do regularly because you have to keep your deps up to speed. I don’t get bored and I’m really grateful for the show; I’ve done more than my share of traveling the world on tours. The theatre is perfect for me now and I’m making the most of it while it lasts.
How many deps do you have?
I inherited five. Most of the time I’ve only used three of them because some have been off on tour. When I sat in to learn the show it was with Toby Drummond who?has been here from near the beginning. He was incredibly helpful to me. That boy should have his own show.
How long does it generally take for someone to sit in and learn it before they can take the show on?
Everyone is different. Ideally, as a dep you want someone to give you a date to learn it by so you have something to aim for but it depends how difficult the show is. When I auditioned I had just under four weeks before I had to start. I really needed that time to learn it. I spent the first two weeks marking up the pad and listening to it and the last two weeks on the kit for the muscle memory. For a difficult show, personally, I think I’d need a month and no less. If you can get a DVD recording of the MD then you don’t need to come in so much cos it’s as good as being there. It all changes when you come in and you’re not playing along with the other drummer though!
Pete is an endorsee for Premier drums, Zildjian cymbals and Vic Firth sticks.
Interview by Gemma Hill
I remember Pete when he was the drummer with he band "Cliche". We all thought we were so cool, back in the day, when we used to travel around watching the band. But we made lifelong friends and have fabulous memories. I was the coolest of them all though, because I was Pete's girlfriend!!!
Janice McCourt, 26 October 2012
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